ESPAÑOLA — It’s been a hard holiday season for David and Melissa Huerta.
Just three months ago, the Placitas couple lost their 22-year-old son, Benjamin Shettsline, in an auto accident northeast of Denver. The University of Colorado student was driving his 2008 Suzuki SUV with his mom and family friend Dedee Gonzales of Denver when a woman in a 2006 Jeep — who already had a drunken-driving record — crossed into his lane hitting him head on. Shettsline died at the scene, and his mom was severely injured.
“She was in a coma and didn’t even find out that Benjamin had died until later,” David Huerta said Tuesday. “It’s been a tough Christmas.”
On Christmas Day, the Huertas and Gonzales went to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs for a soak. Driving through Española on the way back to Placitas, they noticed the parking of La Cocina New Mexican Restaurant was packed. Happy that there was a restaurant open on Christmas Day, they stopped and went in.
But they soon learned this wasn’t a regular day at La Cocina.
The restaurant, owned in part by Española Mayor Javier Sánchez, teamed up with several other local eateries, dozens of volunteer cooks, kitchen helpers and servers — plus sponsors who pitched in money and food — to create a free community “Christmas Giving Back Lunch.”
David Huerta was so touched by this act of kindness and generosity from a community that’s not even his own, he choked up a little when he said, “To me, this happening kind of confirmed God’s continuing presence in our lives.”
A flyer for the event made it clear that the meal was for everyone — and that the event was designed to satisfy hunger for more than just food.
“If hungry come and eat,” it said. “If you are lonely come visit with friends. If you don’t like being alone come on by. If you don’t want to cook come and eat. If you want to volunteer, come on by.”
People arrived in droves to take advantage of the offer. Volunteer servers at La Cocina estimated that more than 200 plates had been served in the first hour of the event. By the second hour, that number had soared past 300 and people continued to trickle in. It seemed like mostly a local group, but there were out-of-towners from Colorado, Arizona and El Paso enjoying the plates of enchiladas, posole, roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy and pinto beans — plus a green salad on the side.
Deserts at the lunch included arroz y leche (rice pudding) and sopa (bread pudding).
“The need is for human contact,” Sánchez said. “Food and company is a great combination.”
William Klebesadel, an Española resident of more than 40 years, agreed.
Klebesadel, who was acting a “unofficial greeter” in the front of the restaurant, said he and his wife Lee Klebesadel, who was helping in the kitchen, were excited when they first heard La Cocina was doing the “Giving Back Lunch” on Christmas.
“You don’t hear much about people helping people,” he said. “I like it when people come together.”
Having a restaurateur as mayor probably is conducive to having a successful holiday food event. Sánchez said the idea for the free community Christmas lunch came from the restaurant’s other co-owner, Phillip Maestas. Sánchez and Maestas convinced other local food establishments to help out. Besides La Cocina, other restaurants participating included Joann’s Rancho Casados Restaurant, El Paragua, El Parasol, Rancho de Chimayo, and Big Dawg’s Chuckwagon Cafe.
There were other past and present city officials helping out as well, including City Councilor Justin Salazar-Torrez, who was bringing food to tables, and former Councilor Pedro Valdez, who was helping dish the deserts with his wife, Teeney Bustos.
One happy diner was Michelle Romero, who sat at a large table of friends and family. She expressed pride about the food in her town. “All the restaurants here serve good homemade food,” she said.
There was a table of five officers from the Española Police Department, who agreed the lunch made having to work on Christmas a little easier.
Several members of the Sikh community volunteered to help cook and serve at the event. Someone at Hacienda de Guru Ram Das, the Sikh ashram in nearby Sombrillo, put a notice of the Christmas lunch in the ashram’s newsletter, which inspired several members to go to La Cocina.
“There’s a tradition of Sikhs serving food to people,” said Tera Kaur Khalsa. Referring to the Sikhs’ most holy shrine, she said, “At the Golden Temple in India, Sikhs serve thousands of people a day.”
Between scooping bowls of arroz y leche, Bustos told a reporter that she was happy the lunch was a success.
There’s already talk about doing it again next year, perhaps at a larger venue, she said.
Leaving La Cocina, the Huertas and Gonzales stopped by the Christmas tree in the lobby to pose for a photo. It was a tough Christmas for them, but David Huerta smiled.
“This,” he said, “was really nice.”